The latest Green Paper on Higher Education, released last November, opens with an explicit call for universities to “provide greater focus on graduate employability”.
“While employers report strong demand for graduate talent, they continue to raise concerns about the skills and job readiness of too many in the graduate labour pool,” warns Fulfilling our Potential – Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice.
“Recent indications that the graduate earnings gap is in decline, and that significant numbers of graduates are going into non-graduate jobs, reinforce the need for action,” the report continues.
Critics may well ask if declining labour market returns for graduates are inevitable, given the dramatic expansion of higher education in recent decades. Others question whether it is the role of universities to make students “job ready” at all.
But universities scoring highly in this year’s Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey say that this is a false dichotomy. Links with industry and placements can help students understand their core course material, as well as being vitally important in landing a job after graduation.
Harper Adams University, the specialist agriculture and farming institution based in Shropshire (pictured below), tops this year’s ranking for industry connections. A big part of the secret appears to be a uniquely high proportion of students taking sandwich courses in industry – the most recent figures show 93.5 per cent took this option. This was a far higher level than at any other university; the second highest was at the University of Bath, with 63.4 per cent. At most universities, less than 10 per cent of students take a sandwich course.
At Harper Adams the “vast majority” of these placements are paid and count towards the students’ qualifications, explains Andy Jones, director of learning and teaching. Virtually every academic visits students while they are on their placements, “which we find beneficial in connecting them with developments in industry, as well as understanding the context of the work in which the students are engaged”, he adds.
This approach appears to be paying off: 96 per cent of graduates were in employment or further study six months after graduating, according to figures from 2013-14. This is higher than the UK average of 93.2 per cent; higher than Harper Adams’ Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) benchmark; and also higher than some other well-known institutions ranked highly by the THE Student Experience Survey, such as the University of Oxford (at 94.7 per cent) and Imperial College London (93.5 per cent).
Students who take sandwich courses are more likely to be employed than those who do not (82 per cent versus 73 per cent), according to analysis by Hesa. Although it did not control for other factors affecting employment, sandwich students were also less likely to be unemployed (6 per cent against 8 per cent) but also less likely to be in further study.
As a specialist institution, Harper Adams does have an advantage when it comes to building links with industry: it can focus its efforts on fewer companies. “There are undoubted advantages in offering a concentrated range of courses in a field of interest to a particular industry sector, and, as a consequence, being visible to the industry,” Jones says. “However, it does not guarantee that employers will be interested in the graduates that you produce.”
He also stresses that although such a high prevalence of sandwich courses means that many students have a good idea about their career path before they leave, the university wants them to remain open minded – for example, by encouraging them to think about starting their own business.
Aston University, which was ranked joint fourth in the survey’s “good industry connections” measure, is another institution where placements in companies are common. Around three-quarters of undergraduates on four-year courses opt for a placement (a third go overseas) and the university aims that by 2020, all students will do a work placement of some kind. Last year, the university advertised 27,500 placement opportunities to students.
However, Aston’s employment rate (at 91.7 per cent) is lower than the UK average, although it is about the same as its Hesa benchmark.
Meanwhile, at Robert Gordon University, ranked joint fourth for industry connections, only about 10 per cent of students take sandwich courses. But the Aberdeen-based university is pioneering other ways for students to engage with potential employers. Connect to Business is a new initiative through which students work part-time in a company while continuing to learn in the classroom, explains Christine Buchanan, dean of students.
At university they work on practical problems that have arisen from their placement organisations. “Students are assessed by an evidence portfolio and employer feedback,” Buchanan says, “which provides a very useful fusion of work and academic perspectives.”
One measure that students at Robert Gordon University are assessed on is their “professional attitudes and behaviours”. This leads to another question for universities: to what extent can and should they teach students “soft skills” – those attributes, such as communication, presentability and sociability, that are important in the workplace but not part of the usual undergraduate curriculum?
When it comes to these kinds of soft skills, some students do just “get it” from the outset, Buchanan says. But others who are less confident can “absolutely” benefit from experiences in the workplace. Robert Gordon University students have returned from placements “with considerably enhanced soft and employability skills”, she says.
Robert Gordon University’s careers service gives students all kinds of information on employability-related topics, including how to dress appropriately for interview, timekeeping, as well as the “minefield” of using social media, she adds.
In an unusual technique, management undergraduates are taught how to perform at job interviews by interviewing academics themselves. They then analyse how they think the interviewee performed – a “powerful learning tool” that “lets them think about their own interview performance through the eyes of the interviewer”, Buchanan says.
But so far, universities seem to be making only patchy headway in improving students’ soft skills. A Higher Education Academy report released last December, the UK Engagement Survey, found that “hard skills” – such as becoming an independent learner – were judged to have improved over a three-year degree; but there was a less discernible rise in the quality of soft skills.
Only a quarter of those surveyed said their employability skills had improved “very much”. A similar proportion judged that their ability to speak “clearly and effectively” had improved, while one in 10 students felt “very little” progress had occurred on this measure.
Is it worth trying to teach such skills if this eats into time for core subject knowledge? “Yes, absolutely,” Buchanan says. “However, bolt-on modules or activities don’t work – there must be a creative integration of these skills-development activities into the existing curriculum to ensure that students fully engage.”
“The primary purpose of a university course is to educate and not simply to prepare students for work,” says Harper Adams’ Jones. The university also insists that employers have a duty to continue to educate graduates at work, to “counter the argument that graduates should be expected to have every soft skill under their belt on day one”.
Harper Adams uses industry representatives to help design courses. But it also challenges businesses’ assumptions about what kind of graduates they need, Jones explains.
Students tell the university that the sandwich years are not only useful for their future prospects, but they also make a “vital contribution” to the rest of the students’ education, says Jones. “Our aim is to ensure that what students learn from their various contacts with industry is not simply aimed at ‘employability’ but is put to good use during the rest of their course.”
James Philip is a fourth-year chemical engineering student at the University of Leeds, which won the 2015 THE award for the most “entrepreneurial university”.
From July 2014 to May 2015, Philip did a sandwich year at Invista, which makes a huge variety of synthetic materials, ranging from nylon to specialist oil pipes. Leeds helped him win one of the placements, which are like “gold dust” for students, he says. And the university arranged for the company to come to campus to select applicants. “For a student who is cash strapped, it’s difficult to travel across the country,” he explains.
Leeds also set up mock interviews for the placement, firing questions at Philip likely to be asked by Invista. And it provided “a second opinion to fall back on” when he was writing his covering letter. In recent years, Leeds has added a curriculum vitae checking service for students. But despite the mock interview, the university could never quite simulate the high-pressure atmosphere of the assessment day itself, Philip acknowledges.
Leeds is “unusual” in allowing placements to be taken up in either the second or third year. Philip took advantage of this flexibility, doing his in the third year so that he had better subject understanding as he took his knowledge into the workplace.